The book begins as Jerry Renault is being beaten at a football tryout. He takes a beating on the field, tackled and smashed over and over, but the coach is impressed by Jerry's will and asks him back the next day. Although he becomes ill after practice, throwing up in the school bathroom, Jerry dreams of making the team.
This chapter begins by introducing Obie, who Cormier describes as bored, disgusted, and tired. Obie mentions that most of all, he is sick and tired of Archie Costello. Obie and Archie sit in the bleachers having a fairly hostile conversation in which Obie tells Archie that he should not be receiving communion in church. Obie hates arguing with Archie, primarily due to Archie's inability to be defeated and his brilliance. Archie is the leader of a gang called The Vigils, and is known for ordering classmates to carry out cruel assignments.
In this scene, Archie is attempting to think of the next ten kids he wants to use for assignments, and Obie is taking notes. Archie has to think of two more people. He chooses a classmate known as "The Goober," who is also trying out for the football team. Lastly, he chooses Jerry. Obie protests—Jerry's mom recently died, and he does not think it appropriate to give Jerry an assignment now. Archie thinks of the perfect assignment for Jerry, and tells Obie to assign Jerry to the chocolates.
Jerry thumbs through a pornographic magazine at a store, wondering why he feels so guilty doing it when most of the boys he knows buy and stash the same kinds of magazines. Once Jerry bought one, spending all of his allowance, but when he got home, he was not sure what to do with the magazine. He finally grew tired of worrying that his mother would find it, and threw it away. The magazine had made Jerry wonder if a girl would ever love him.
Jerry makes his way to the bus stop, and from across the street a man calls out to him, accusing him of staring. Jerry and the anonymous man have a brief back and forth, ending with the man calling Jerry a "square boy." This resonates with Jerry, as he thinks of the people who do not do much with their lives. He looks out the bus window and sees an empty advertising board on which someone has written: "Why?" and someone else has responded: "Why not?"
Archie and Brother Leon have a conversation about the upcoming chocolate sale. Brother Leon tells Archie that the school must sell 20,000 boxes. Leon calls the sale "special," and refers to the massive profit the school could make if each boy sold fifty boxes. Archie is not sure why Brother Leon has called him to talk about the chocolates. Brother Leon is an anomaly at the school—a riveting teacher with a cruel twist. He is sarcastic and power-hungry, often making fun of students in class for no particular reason other than that he can.
After a lengthy conversation about what the chocolate sale could mean for the school, Brother Leon asks for Archie's help. Archie pretends he has no idea what Leon is talking about. No one actually mentions out loud Archie's affiliation with The Vigils, but the knowledge of the gang is universal. Brother Leon asks Archie to get "behind the sale." Archie decides to play with Brother Leon, asking him what he could do as a single student who is not involved in student government or sports. Leon replies only that Archie knows what he means, and refuses to elaborate any further. Archie, thrilled to be asked for help by a teacher and a Brother, says out loud that the Vigils will help.
The first scene in the book is one in which the protagonist, Jerry Renault, receives blow after blow at a football tryout. Immediately, Cormier casts Jerry as the underdog—he is not a big kid, or naturally gifted at sports. Rather, he is skinny and unassuming, but works hard and exhibits determination. The reader learns about Jerry's personality through this painful scene on the football field, especially as Jerry perseveres through the pain, getting back up and running plays over and over. Jerry is also set up to be a dreamer. He walks home from practice thinking that he'll make the team: "I'm going to make the team. Dreamer, dreamer. Not a dream: It's the truth." Jerry's teetering self-confidence is evident here as well, as he tries to convince himself that what he wants and dreams about is actually possible.
Chapter 2 introduces Obie, Archie, and The Vigils. Instead of first introducing the gang and what they do, Cormier begins by describing Obie's hatred for Archie. Despite this hatred, Obie admires Archie for his cleverness, his diabolical plans, and he continues to act as Archie's secretary. Archie's control over Obie—someone who despises him—illustrates his power. If he can maintain power over someone who hates him, it is easy to imagine how easy it is for Archie to maintain control over other kids, especially those afraid of him.
Cormier describes Archie not just as mean, but also as psychologically brutal and cruel. Archie possesses psychopathic tendencies evident in this earlier chapter. He can change in a flash from the person who plots the demise of others to someone who seems concerned or even caring—" he could be a wise bastard one minute and a great guy the next." Archie decides that he wants to give Jerry an assignment—the chocolates. He does not care that Jerry's mother has just died, in fact, he is even further motivated by that detail to perfectly tailor-make an assignment for Jerry.
Cormier uses Chapter 3 to remind us that this is a story largely about coming of age. Jerry looks through pornographic magazines, but his motivation is slightly different than that of other boys his age. He is not even sure what to do with one of the magazines when he buys one. Instead, he succumbs to guilt, especially when thinking of his mother finding out. In this instance, Jerry looks at the women in the magazine and wonders if anyone will ever love him. Pornographic magazines become a fascination at some point for most boys, but in using this typical example, Cormier shows us an untypical boy. Jerry possesses more sensitivity than most boys, and even when looking at Playboy, Jerry thinks of the possibility of love. Cormier juxtaposes this scene with the previous scene involving Archie and Obie to set up an opposition and an impending conflict between these characters.
Archie's conversation with Brother Leon illustrates his supreme power. A teacher actually asks for his help, not just Archie's help, but also the help of The Vigils. Instead of punishing The Vigils, teachers at the school simply refused to acknowledge their existence. In this chapter, Brother Leon not only acknowledges the existence of this gang, but also condones it as long as the gang can help him. In asking for The Vigils' help, Brother Leon joins the conspiracy. Immediately, Leon appears lacking in scruples, sanctioning the means as long as it leads to the right end. He also is consumed with profit, upping the cost of the chocolates from previous years and taking on many more boxes than before. When the conversation ends, it is clear that Archie has the upper hand—not only over the student body, but over the teachers and school as well. Brother Leon grants him ultimate power, and as the chapter ends the reader wonders exactly how cruel Archie can be.
That's my favorite quote from the book and it makes Jerry realize that individuality isn't very meritorious because of the people of the world who will aim to bring you down. This was perfect.